Monday, May 30, 2011

Review of Chime by Franny Billingsley

Billingsley, Franny.  Chime.  Dial, 2011.

Like Billingsley's Folk Keeper, this fantasy takes place in a country that is recognizably England (in the early part of the 20th century, in Chime's case), but in this version of England, there are fairies and brownies and witches and vampires and Old Ones.  Folks might live their whole lives never coming in contact with these creatures, but most people acknowledge that they exist.

17-year-old Briony and her twin sister Rose lead a lonely life with their distant dad in a tiny village by a swamp, but when a developer and his handsome, charming son Eldric come to stay, everything changes.  Briony, who knows she has terrible witchy powers that can (and in fact have) hurt people unless she keeps them under control, allows Eldric past her defenses - and who can blame her?  The guy is really a dream - leonine, with a quirky boyish charm and sheer niceness that is absolutely pure and real.

Briony is also a teenage girl, and she can't help wanting to be happy and to have the kind of life and love that normal girls have.  It's a pleasure to watch her thaw out and relax in Eldric's company, and to begin to contemplate the possibility of a joyful future.  Except - the swamp is being drained by Eldric's dad, and the powerful spirits in the swamp don't like it, and bring a deadly sickness upon the villagers.  Only Briony has the chance of reversing it - but if she does, everyone will recognize her for the witch she is.  And witches get hanged.

Briony has been told, from a very young age and by someone she trusted and loved, that she has caused terrible harm. Although the reader, experiencing not just Briony's inner thoughts but also her wit and humor, will come to doubt her wickedness fairly quickly, it takes Briony frustratingly long - the whole book - to realize it herself.  Her sense of self-worth has been almost destroyed, and it feels so good when she finally decides she is, after all, loveable.

This is a captivating book, for Briony's changing perceptions of herself, for the characterizations of vivid people like Rose and Eldric, and for its sweet romance.  The writing is, as always with Billingsley, a joy.  Briony's fanciful voice, melodramatic, lyrical, and goofy by turns, kept me captivated all the way through, and the dialogue is quick-silver and entrancing. The uneasy relationship between the worlds of the humans and the Old Ones remains rather mysterious, but clearly blood and violence is never far away.  There are deaths and maimings, most caused by hostile spirits in the swamp.  The hanging of a young woman by the villagers, thought to be a witch, is a jarring note, not least because it seems to make little difference in the psyches of any character to learn, beyond a doubt, that she was innocent.  

Highly recommended for fans of Libba Bray's A Great and Terrible Beauty and other stories of teenage girls with a strong link to the magical world.  Ages 14 and up.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review of Bloodline Rising by Katy Moran

Moran, Katy.  Bloodline Rising.  Candlewick Press, 2011.

In this sequel, Bloodline's hero Essa has left Britain with Lark to settle in Constantinople and is now the father of 12-year-old Cai, named for Essa's father.  Cai eschews the company of his family in favor of that of thieves and criminals; his penchant for thrills and his strange gift for moving about unseen and for influencing minds make him a master of the art.  After he runs afoul of the wrong person, he is captured by slavers and ends up in Britain, land of his parents - who have never told him anything about their lives there.

Those who have read Bloodline will know about the complex and constantly shifting alliances, feuds, and battles among the many small kingdoms in 7th century Britain, and Cai becomes embroiled in them from the moment he is claimed by his father's old friend Wulf. 

Much of the plot revolves around the enmity between various lords and kings, and I found it hard to keep track of it or even to care very much.  Much more interesting are Cai's thoughts and feelings, such as his discombobulation at finding himself, after a hideous and harrowing journey on a slave ship, in a primitive land, where no one takes baths or knows how to read or write, where the streets are lined with mud instead of stone, and where everyone sleeps in one big room together like a bunch of puppies.  Constantinople is a paradise of civilization in comparison. 

Cai misses his intense but loving father intensely, who he believes is dead and through Cai's fault to boot, and he just can't trust the affable, larger-than-life Wulf, whose motives don't always seem clear-cut.  Distrustful and fierce, Cai can't let his defenses down and so ends up being his own worst enemy.

I must say that I miss Essa myself, and would have been more than content to read about his (not exactly uneventful) life in Constantinople, with his naughty son Cai being only a peripheral character.  It's not that Cai is uninteresting, but I didn't ever completely cotton to him.  The potential was there, but his friendships with Edge and Cerny are not quite developed enough, and he just lacks a certain depth of character.  The short segment involving his journey aboard the slaver and the cook who befriends him stands out as the most vibrant part of the book.

Not that this isn't worth reading - it is.  It just didn't captivate me to the same extent that Bloodline (and young Essa) did.  If you loved Bloodline, give this one a try.  And if you didn't haven't read Bloodline, get thee to a library!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Big Ships

A colleague, to whom I was bemoaning how hard it was to make any changes in our library system, said to me, "Our library system is a Very Big Ship, and big ships take a long time to make even small changes in direction."

This was a couple years ago, before the Budget Crisis of 09/10 and the subsequent Great Retirement and Layoffs that left us with a very lean staff indeed.

We are still a Big Ship, but with less crew aboard.  However, we do have some able and energetic visionaries with the power and will to pull us in the right direction.  They are our tugboats, and I try my best to be a tugboat as well.

Tugboats can push and pull a Big Ship along quite nimbly.  But it doesn't mean everyone is on board!

As in any large organization, we seem to have lots of people trailing behind our ship, bobbing along on unseaworthy little vessels and even on inner tubes.  They're getting pulled along with the ship by long and fraying ropes, and it takes them much longer to get where we're headed - if they even get there at all.  Even when our Big Ship, aided by our tugboats, makes a nimble turn, our flotilla of stragglers makes the turn slooowwwlllyyy.

How do we pull those trailing folks on board?  How do we get reluctant staff to embrace Change?  How do we get them proficient on library e-media when some of our librarians don't even like to use email?

No, I don't think cutting the ropes and letting them drift away is a solution! ;-)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Research should be felt, not seen

I can't remember where I read it, but someone said that writers should research the heck out of a subject if they need to - but that like a petticoat under a skirt, it shouldn't show too dramatically beneath the story they eventually write.

I've been reading more historical fiction than usual recently, from Judy Blundell's Strings Attached (1950 New York) to Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter (late 17th century New England) to Franklin's Murderous Procession (12th century Europe), and now I'm on Moran's Bloodline Rising (7th century Constantinople and England).

What these books have in common is a focus on character and plot.  The reader gets a vivid sense of the time and place, but we aren't bludgeoned over the head with all the ways in which these are different from our own.  Rather, the characters lead their lives, and it's people they meet, the situations they find themselves in, and key details large and (more often) small that give us insight into their time and place.  One sentence in Murderous Procession, a throw-away line about a man's unusual and somewhat uncomfortable shoes with soft leather uppers stitched onto hard leather soles, made me realize that all the other characters were wearing very different footwear than I had imagined, and I was so curious as to what 12th century English shoes might be like that I looked it up.  Good historical fiction gives readers a thirst to learn more about the era.

Language is important in creating the feeling of a time and place.  Strings Attached walks a fine line by using Raymond Chandler-like language that could sound forced or farcical if done incorrectly (something out of Prairie Home Companion's Guy Noir, Private Eye episodes, perhaps).  Luckily, it isn't overdone, but rather is sprinkled throughout the story to add just enough tough-gal flavor.  The Heretic's Daughter, told in the first person from the point of view of a grandmother telling of her childhood when the whole region was swept up in witch-hunting hysteria, uses old-fashioned, formal sentence structure to give the reader a sense of New England's puritan roots.

The sidewalks in my neighborhood are all stamped with the date 1939, a year in which the City of Los Angeles got very busy with municipal projects in Venice.  Sometimes as I walk along, I try to imagine what the streets looked like during WWII, or in 1956, or 1968 (the 70s are easy - I scampered along those streets as a scab-kneed kid).  Ordinary folks walking along the same sidewalks.  The cars and footwear and hairstyles were different, but the thoughts, worries, and joys were the same.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Review of Strings Attached by Judy Blundell

Blundell, Judy.  Strings Attached.  Scholastic Press, 2011.

Strings Attached opens with a premise that is a winner all on its own - it's 1950 and Kit Corrigan, a 17-year-old singer and dancer, is trying to make it in New York City.  She's a plucky redhead, one of a set of Irish-American triplets with a dead mother and a just-scraping-by dad - and she's going to get on Broadway someday if it kills her.

That would be enough to hook me, as I'm a sucker for books and movies about chorus girls getting a lucky break.  But wait, the plot thickens.  Kit has an ex-boyfriend named Billy in the army for whom she still holds a torch, and though he seems to be out of the picture, his mob lawyer dad Nate won't leave Kit alone.  He lets her live in an apartment he owns rent-free, gives her a bunch of clothes, and even gets her a coveted dancing job at the Lido Club - and says it's all because he wants Kit and Billy to get married and have the apartment when Billy gets out of the army. 

At this point, the reader's alarm bells will be going off big time, but though Kit is wary, she wants that apartment enough to ignore any worry pangs.  After all, it's not like Nate is making her do anything bad or weird.  Just, once in a while he asks her to talk to someone at the Lido Club, or to tell him if someone showed up or not.  Annoying, but no big deal.

Though this is all very intriguing and glamorous/seedy, the best part of the book is the backstory, which unfolds in an unpredictable set of flashbacks.  All the delicious trappings of a noir classic are here - doomed love affairs, terrible tragedies, deadly secrets, mob death contracts, and even some victims of the second Red Scare.  At the center of it all is Kit, who thinks she's street-wise but gets herself into some major hot water.

Kit's voice is tough and sassy one moment, wistful the next, as she tries to become a woman of the world while yearning for safety and friendship.  The language evokes the time period, with occasional turns of phrase so hard-boiled that they crackle like a gangster's moll snapping her gum.  Nothing overdone - just enough to allow the reader to settle into that lovely noir mood.

Is the plot realistic?  No way!  Plausible?  Nah - the whole Nate plot is pretty darn tenuous.  Entertaining as all get out?  Heck yes!  Highly recommended for ages 14 and up.

Friday, May 20, 2011

ECRR 2 right around the corner

The long-awaited, long-overdue new and improved version of Every Child Ready to Read is right around the corner.  I've got a post about it over at the ALSC blog today.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rat of my heart

Our very last rat has died.  At one point we had 12 in the house (when one of our two new female rats gave birth to 10 babies unexpectedly), but for the last few months, ever since his siblings went to that Great Cheese in the sky, Georgie has been our only rodent.

I love rats, but Georgie was special.  Glossy and gregarious from the very beginning, he was the most sociable rat in his family as well as the most handsome.  And he stayed frisky, friendly, and adventurous until the very end, when he finally died in his sleep - a truly elderly gentleman of 2 1/2 years old.  Thinking he was liable to keel over at any time, I began letting him free-range through the living room twice a day several months ago, and maybe the joy of that kept him going.  He'd roam, but he returned every few minutes to my feet - just checking in to say hi.
Georgie at 2 weeks
I've kvetched before about how anti-rat most children's literature is (and how pro-mice.  Puhleeze!), so I'll just end this post on a positive note with a link to some rat-addled folks who would appreciate what a fine creature Georgie was.

Monday, May 16, 2011

For the people

These folks depicted using the San Francisco Public Library could have been at LAPL's Central Library or indeed at just about any main urban library.  What amazing, warm, and vibrant sketches - talk about a labor of love.

I hope Wendy MacNaughton sketches some kids using the library next!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

If I could bottle that energy...

Last Saturday, Wendelin Van Draanen (center) was the featured speaker at the Children's Literature Council of Southern California's Spring Workshop.  The theme was "books to movies," and as Rob Reiner made a fine film from Van Draanen's wonderful Flipped, she had plenty of insider insight and cool anecdotes.  Remember the famous sycamore tree that Juli sits in?  Well, Rob Reiner finally found just the perfect tree - but it was in a park with a basketball court underneath it.  So he had the basketball court torn out and put in an asphalt road and sidewalk (so the school bus could pull up).  Afterwards, he put the basketball court back in.  Man, if libraries had that kind of money, what couldn't we accomplish?

Although she stayed in one spot on the stage, Van Draanen bounced on her toes as she spoke, stretched her arms, shifted her weight, and altogether gave off huge waves of irrepressible, good-humored energy.  She spends hours writing, runs marathons, and talks a mile a minute (with plenty of squeaks and other fun sound effects); it's not surprising that, when her first manuscript (for adults) was rejected, she wrote 3 more in quick succession before finally getting How I Survived Being a Girl published in 1997.

Carl Gottlieb, screenwriter for Jaws and many other movies, pointed out to us that for big projects, there are usually multiple screenwriters, both at the same time and one after another, and often most of them have never actually read the source material.  No wonder, then, that not only the original magic but the original plot is often lost in movies based on books.  However, movies based on books keep getting made, and Gottlieb speculated that it's because if you scratch most big, brash movie producers, you'll find someone who once read comic books under the covers with a flashlight.

Hmm.  I saw Thor last weekend, and though I knew the movie was based on a comic book based on Norse mythology rather than directly on Norse mythology, it was still a disappointment (except for Chris Hemsworth's physique).  It may or may not have been true to the comic book, but the movie's depiction of Asgard and its inhabitants was stultifyingly static.  Sometimes one needs to disregard intermediate source material and go back to the original. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Geek energy

My mom took me to see Cameron Carpenter, the Bad Boy of pipe organists, at the Disney Hall last night.  I know nothing whatsoever about organ music, but that didn't matter.  Carpenter's command of this crazy instrument is breathtaking, with hands skimming over the four stacked keyboards and hundreds of draw stop controls while his feet dance over dozens of pedal boards.  It was wild, and the sound surging out of the pipes was like an orchestra gone mad.

And then there were Mr. Carpenter's clothes.  He appeared first in a stretchy tight black jacket with sparkles at the hem and collar, skinny acid-washed jeans (or perhaps jeggings), and cuban-heeled, pointy-toed, sparkly... pumps? They surely looked like pumps.  But perhaps they were boots around which he had attached stirrups from his leggings.  Or were they spats?  After the intermission, he strode out to his organ in those same ambiguous shoes, plus sparkly skin-tight black leggings and a low-cut, clingy, drapey black tunic, the shoulders and back of which were entirely sheer, allowing us a vision of the muscles knobbling across his skinny back as he played.  This outfit drew an involuntary susurration of affectionate admiration from the audience, the average age of which must have been about 65.

But what made the biggest impression on me (besides the shoes) was his geekdom.  Yes, he is young and good-looking and refreshingly prone to flamboyant clothing - but his sheer passion for and knowledge of music in general and organ music in particular, plus his need to share it with the world (not just through his playing but in witty, erudite, and extremely geeky little intros to each piece), completely won me over.  How I admire people with a grand passion for something weird, unusual, and super cool.

To bring this back to books - I just finished Jo Walton's Among Others (Tor, 2011).  This is about a 15-year-old Welsh girl who, along with her twin sister, has always been able to see and communicate with fairies.  In fact, because fairies can't directly affect the world, they have sometimes helped the fairies accomplish such things as the closing of a poisonous mine.  But in trying to stop their magical, mad, and wicked mother from accomplishing some diabolical act, the sisters are in a terrible acccident.  One dies, and the other, Morwenna, is left with a painful, crippled leg and is sent to her estranged father and his sisters in England, who promptly send Mor to boarding school.

This book, in the form of Mor's diary entries, takes place a year or so after the accident, while Mor is at boarding school.  Though we learn more about fairies, they remain enigmatic and mysterious, even to Mor.  And the nature of Mor's mother and the terrible thing she tried to do remains unclear, along with some other ambiguous elements (such as Mor's sister), which leads the reader to question what is real and what is not.

For me, though, this book is really about two entertwined things - a girl's strong love for books, especially SF and fantasy, and her gradual journey toward learning how to live the world with other people and maybe even enjoy it.  Mor has plenty of time to read (as she can't do sports at school, and she can't make friends very easily either) and MAN does she read a lot.  She tears through all the greats of SF, from Poul Anderson to Roger Zelazny, and tells us what she likes and doesn't like - and when she joins an SF book club at the library, she really gets her geek on (and worries that she talks too much and too vehemently - but can't stop herself).  What's delightful is that while she is thoughtful and extremely intelligent, she is also a teenaged girl.  The last line of the book?  After a lovely paragraph that reflects a  new openness to life and all it will bring ("Things will happen that I can't imagine.  I'll change and grow into a future that will be unimaginably differet from the past.  I'll be alive.  I'll be me.  I'll be reading my book....I'll learn while I live... That's what life is, and how I intend to live it."), she says "Gate of Ivrel turns out to be really brill."

I haven't read most of the books Mor thinks are "brill," but midway through the book I was so impressed by her insights (which of course are really Jo Walton's insights, a writer who is quite brill herself) that I cursed myself for not writing them all down.  Mor's ueber-geeky passion for her chosen genre thrilled me to the core.  I can't wait to go out and catch up on all that good 60's and 70's SF.

That's the thing about passion.  It's contagious.  It makes one's blood sing.  Thank goodness for geeks.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Review of Numbers: The Chaos by Rachel Ward

Ward, Rachel.  Numbers: The Chaos. Chicken House, 2011.

It's 2026 and England is getting very wet as climate change is causing the ocean to slosh over its perimeter.  There are power outages and food shortages.  Nope, this isn't Carbon Diaries - it's the sequel to Numbers.

On the chilling last page of Numbers, we learn that Jem's baby has inherited her ability to look into someone's eyes and see the date they will die.  In The Chaos, that baby is a troubled teen named Adam, and he has just moved to London, where he realizes something horrifying - an astounding number of people have the same death dates, clustered around the first few days of January 2027.  Something truly horrible is going to kill thousands of Londoners in less than 6 months.

Sarah, a girl in Adam's class, has been having terrible nightmares.  In particular, she dreams that Adam is walking with a baby into a wall of flames.  And she's got some pretty horrendous problems at home, causing her to run away from home.

As January 1, 2027 looms, the plot spirals into a fever pitch of terrifying, claustrophobic tension.  No one will believe the teens that something horrible will happen, no one will do anything - and Adam and Sarah feel powerless to change anything or even save themselves.

Although Adam and Sarah are drawn toward each other, this is not the intense and sweet doomed romance of Adam's parents Jem and Spider; this is much more of a thriller than Numbers was.  The Chaos is an intense knuckle-biter of a dystopian nightmare ride, and teens will throw their hands in the air and scream eagerly the whole time.  The exact nature of the January 1 catastrophe isn't revealed, or at least not its cause - there seems to have been some kind of bombing, but also some kind of earthquake.  This vagueness makes the event even scarier, but it also makes the future uncertain.  Has London been attacked?  Are there more terrible natural disasters in store?  It's hard to imagine what will happen next when we aren't sure what just happened, but surely there's a lot more hardship in store.

Recommended for older teens who are fans of dystopian fiction.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

It's all good

Yikes, with so much going on, my head is in a whirl.  Summer Reading Club for preschoolers, children, and teens!  Recognition events for our GAB reading volunteers!  Children's Book Week!  Training/information meeting for our children's and teen librarians!  Homework centers!  Early literacy workshops!  The Learning Lab grant application!  Monthly report revisions!

It's like juggling chainsaws - I can keep those suckers in the air for a long, long time, but some day I'm bound to drop on, and the results may be messy.

To help me deal with setbacks large and small, I've chosen Pete the Cat as my personal guru.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review of The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

Stephens, John.  The Emerald Atlas (The Books of Beginning #1).  Knopf, 2011.

There is nothing new under the sun, and this plot will sound familiar - 3 very young children are ripped away from their parents when evil comes calling, and spend the next 10 years in nasty orphanages, each one worse than the last.  After being sent to a mysterious old house, they find a magic book, go back in time, discover that they are children of destiny whose coming has been prophesied, and defeat a nasty villain - and yet a far nastier piece of work is still lying in wait for them, and he has imprisoned their long-lost parents.

That's just the bones of the story, however; it's the lovely details and eccentric characters that flesh out the story and give it heart.  There is 11-year-old Emma, who is impatient, fierce, and brave, and whose ferocious love and loyalty toward the heroic Gabriel is one of most tender aspects of the book.  There is 12-year-old Michael, whose tendency toward didacticism and geeky fan boy love of all things Dwarf are quite endearing (well, not to Emma).  And there is Kate, their 14-year-old sister, who is just trying to keep everyone safe and together in rather trying circumstances.

Vicious critters abound, but we don't gain much understanding of their motivation or background (and it's a good thing, because they get slaughtered like so many cockroaches when our heroes finally prevail).  The evil Countess is power-hungry and intriguing but ultimately banal.  The Dire Magnus, though - I have some real hope that his personality is as fascinating and evil as his name.

This is a fine roller-coaster ride of a story, with time travel, eccentric dwarfs, ample opportunity for heroic gestures, and a finale that has a surprising amount of emotional resonance.  I was actually reminded of the way I feel at the end of a Narnia book - all full of sadness (that it's over), joy (at the satisfying and heartwarming ending), fear (because of the dangers ahead for the siblings), and anticipation (there will be two more, at least!).

Highly recommended for most fantasy fans, especially those who enjoy the Narnia books, Emily Rodda's Rondo series, Holly Lisle's Moon and Sun series, and other similar fantasies.  For ages 9 to 12.